"Sitting on the stump under the burden of his father's death and even the mortality inherent in the dying, wildly colored canopy of leaves, he somehow understood that life is only what one did every day."
Jim Harrison "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," in Legends of the Fall (1979)
“Why would anyone wish to be unique unless it was ultimately for the common good?”
Jim Harrison, "Tracking" (2005)
He continued writing and publishing poetry throughout his life, as well as essays and observations, but his best known work is his fiction. His first famous work, probably still his most famous is "Legends of the Fall," which in addition to being a mythic story, began his legendary revival of the novella form.
One of his longer works was The Road Home (1998). He said of that book that it "addresses the soul history of our country." Its events are interlaced with those in a previous and much admired novel, Dalva. Together they seem to me to qualify as a Great American Novel, of which there are but a few candidates from the later twentieth century.
I've read much (although not all) of his work, and have written about some. (I just collected some of those pieces over at Kowincidence.) I kept trying to characterize what was unique about his writing. My last attempt read: His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.
His work was often ribald and some of his protagonists were outrageous. Harrison wrote about sex and Hollywood, but his physical appearance did not match up that well. Blinded in one eye, riven by the tragic loss of his father and sister in the same car crash, he managed a long marriage and fatherhood as well as a writing life that remained productive to the end.
Harrison did not confine himself to contemporary urban domestic scenes that grip the literary Zeitgeist, but wrote about American history, the West and Midwest, rural and small towns, and particularly the human engagement with the natural world. These are all reasons he didn't get more literary attention and prizes, though he did have plenty of admirers.
On another blog, I wrote this during the week of his death: On Saturday, the day he died (though it wasn't announced until Sunday), I watched a video of the late psychologist James Hillman (who Harrison often quoted) saying that as humans, our job in the world is to fall in love with it. The New York Times obit Sunday quotes Will Blythe reviewing Harrison: “His books glisten with love of the world."
His allegiance was with this planet, in all its dimensions. In one of his last books, his main characters notes that his sense of wonder is less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him.”
Though we never met we had people and places in common. He was nearly a decade older and we were just out of phase. But there are a number of odd symmetries and coincidences (including in that photo above--for years I had exactly the same lamp in my writing area as appears there.) As a writer he's been a touchstone and a teacher. He's also endlessly quotable, especially from the interviews that often sound like one of his characters talking.
In a preface to some poems, he wrote: "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime."
His devotion to this vocation of writing sentences--which as a vocation is a total mystery to most people--is what will stay with me, keep me and maybe bless me, if I'm lucky.
He said on more than one occasion--and was caught doing so on video--that he'd like to be reborn as a tree. Maybe one like this. May he rest in peace. His work lives on.
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